The Government's Approach to Crime Prevention - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 158-


19 JANUARY 2010

  Q158  Chairman: Mr McDowell, you know why the Committee is conducting this inquiry.

  Mr McDowell: Yes, I do.

  Q159  Chairman: You will realise that we are trying to look at the causes of crime. What do you believe to be the root causes of crime, and do you believe the government has addressed them? If you were to think of the five most important causes what would they be?

  Mr McDowell: These things are as ever very complex to summarise. The experience that we as a charity have had over many years in working with those at risk of committing crime and offenders themselves is that many different elements connected to social deprivation are probably among the biggest causes. For instance, I refer to young people who are excluded from school, do not have a sound education or level of attainment, are unable to get employment and have not had great role models in their family and upbringing, so there is a broad lack of opportunity which leads them into crime. Potentially, it could lead everybody into crime, but a mixture of those missing opportunities which most of us take for granted tends to lead those who do commit crime in that direction.

  Q160  Chairman: Can you profile from birth?

  Mr McDowell: What I am describing is based on the experience that all of our people on the ground have had over many years. Typically, the people who come through the door and attend and benefit from the programmes we deliver very much fit that profile. Very often they will tick that list I have described.

  Q161  Bob Russell: From your long history in the Prison Service you must have been a very nice game-keeper to have the job you have now. You will have heard my question to the previous witness. From your experience are there many people who enter prison with an acquired brain injury?

  Mr McDowell: I am not able to add to the answer that has been provided to you. In the time I was in the Prison Service I was never exposed to any discussion or evidence to suggest that either way.

  Q162  Bob Russell: That will have to be revisited because the evidence from the University of Exeter indicates otherwise. Statistics appear to show reductions in re-offending of both adults and juveniles since 2002. What do you believe are the reasons for this decline?

  Mr McDowell: This is key work for us. We are very clear that the focus on the delivery of basic joined-up resettlement processes is most likely to have made the difference in respect of that reduction in re-offending. The key factors that we know are likely to help offenders make different decisions to change their lives are: level of educational attainment; the ability to get a job; dealing with housing issues; maintaining family ties; dealing with health-related issues; and individual assessment, recognising what the individual might need and delivering on that. Crucially, following the delivery of those services through the gate back into the community is in our view most likely to have had the biggest effect in that respect.

  Q163  Martin Salter: I declare an interest in having been involved in both the Nacro-sponsored Jail Guitar Doors campaign and the Reading Angling Action project. I am aware of your work and support a lot of the initiatives you do on the ground certainly in my constituency. The government is talking about focusing even more intensely on prolific offenders. We have to an extent got our head round what could work in terms of people entering the prison estate for the first time. Of course prolific offenders fall into a different category. In your experience what sorts of programmes work best in targeting prolific offenders and attempting to change their behaviour?

  Mr McDowell: The theme to which I shall keep returning is joined-up services. We are weakest when we stick to our silos and do not join up the relevant work of the agencies. In terms of prolific offenders individual needs must be assessed. It will depend on the background of offending, the offending history and the particular problems of that individual. The delivery of relevant offending behaviour programmes is dependent on their individual need but an assessment of their resettlement needs and the level of support they might get once they leave prison is very important as far as we are concerned. One of the things we believe should be a distinct part of what we do in relation to prolific offenders is an increased level of relevant mentoring for offenders by well-trained adults once they are released back into the community. We are running those types of schemes around the country especially for young offenders. We believe that to be quite effective.

  Q164  Martin Salter: Presumably, a prolific offender is someone who has offended before and therefore we come back to the point Mr Davies raised earlier about how we deal with people when they first enter the prison estate. At that point they are not prolific but obviously if they re-offend, re-offend and re-offend they soon hit the "prolific" category. Based on research from the Social Exclusion Unit I note that 20% of prisoners have the writing skills, 35% the numeracy skills and 50% the reading skills of an 11 year-old child. Sixty to 70% of prisoners use drugs and 70% of prisoners suffer from at least two mental disorders. If you have that toxic cocktail does it not tell us that we must begin to address those basic deficiencies at the moment people enter the prison estate before they can get to the stage of being prolific offenders?

  Mr McDowell: Yes. To add one more statistic to your list, over one quarter have levels of educational attainment below those of a seven year-old. When I list the resettlement pathway outcomes that need to be joined up and delivered on an individual basis education and training is a key element in that. There is no doubt in my mind that if you do not deal with that issue you will not deal with employment and therefore you are unlikely to be very successful in the work you do.

  Q165  Martin Salter: Does that lead to the inevitable conclusion we have been pushing that you cannot do any of this in the context of a short first-time custodial sentence? If you are to put people on effective programmes you cannot do it if you have people in the prison estate for only a short period of time?

  Mr McDowell: That depends very much on the quality of the interventions and resettlement programmes that you can deliver in a joined-up way both in custody and beyond. We are not necessarily very good at the moment in joining up through the gates. When people are back in the community there is a tendency for us not to continue with the delivery of effective services.

  Q166  David Davies: In terms of the resettlement of offenders one of the criticisms levelled at prisons is that they become universities of crime and prisoners pick up other tricks from them. I have never accepted that. Is it not the case that when prisoners are resettled they are just as likely to go back to their old haunts and meet with the people who introduced them to crime in the first place?

  Mr McDowell: To a great extent both of those things are true. Early intervention and how you prevent crime from being committed in the first place is a key part of this debate. Tackling those very difficult issues in our communities is absolutely key. In a sense I would not want us to give up on the idea of changing people's lives and reducing their likelihood of re-offending simply on the basis that we shall return them to damaged communities where they are likely to link up with the same people who influenced their decisions in the first place. Let us deal with what is going on in those communities.

  Q167  Mr Winnick: The previous witness whose evidence you listened to gave us the picture that if all was not well in prisons it was better than it used to be and he denied there was overcrowding and the rest of it. Do you go along with that?

  Mr McDowell: As the Committee is aware, I have only just left the Prison Service after 20 years' service.

  Q168  Mr Winnick: You were a prison governor, were you not?

  Mr McDowell: Yes, I was. What I can tell the Committee is that the quality of the work delivered in the Prison Service now compared with when I joined has changed significantly. Levels of educational provision, the quality of offender behaviour programmes we deliver, even the ability of the service to join up with other agencies, which has improved though there is a long way to go, and the involvement of the voluntary sector which is crucial to Nacro have improved and increased significantly. There are huge challenges. Nobody could have predicted that the prison population would double effectively in the past 20 years, but a lot more work is being done with individual prisoners than was being done before.

  Q169  Mr Winnick: Most people, certainly Members of Parliament, opinion-formers and the general public for that matter would take the view that a large percentage of those who go to prison once released will hopefully have learnt their lesson, have the opportunity of a job or job training and not re-offend. What percentage of offenders find a job on leaving custody?

  Mr McDowell: I do not have that figure.

  Q170  Mr Winnick: Will you write to us in due course and provide that figure?

  Mr McDowell: I will certainly try.

  Q171  Chairman: Is it over 50%?

  Mr McDowell: We know that the rate of re-offending is still high despite the progress we have made. We will certainly look into it and provide the Committee with the information. We know for sure that it is very difficult for ex-offenders once released to get employment as a consequence of their record. We take calls in their thousands from ex-offenders who seek advice from us about how they overcome the restrictions on them in terms of employment opportunities.

  Q172  Mr Clappison: I dare say that if we hear the figure we will come to the conclusion that not enough offenders find a job on leaving custody. Do you believe enough is being done to provide prisoners, particularly young offenders, with practical training in particular and skills to help them find a job in a trade or line of work?

  Mr McDowell: We are doing a lot more of that. Nacro is itself involved in delivering vocational training outside custody. I was formerly governor of Coldingley in Surrey which is a prison set up to do precisely what you describe. It has workshops and everybody is employed and learns skills. When I was there we tried to make links with employers. A lot more could be done. Education in terms of academic achievement is helpful and important but sometimes vocational training, the qualifications that come from it and the link that can be made to employers, if only we could overcome the challenge of encouraging them to employ ex-offenders, are crucial. Lots of offenders are much more open to that kind of training.

  Q173  Mr Clappison: Should we not have a lot more prisons and institutions like Coldingley where people can do training and work?

  Mr McDowell: Yes.

  Q174  Mr Winnick: Statistics given to us show that in 2002 nearly three out of five prisoners were reconvicted within two years of leaving prison. As I understand it, since then the situation has improved. To what extent has it improved?

  Mr McDowell: I do not have figures to show the percentage improvement.

  Q175  Mr Winnick: Would it be right to say that the majority of those who leave prison re-offend within a period of two years?

  Mr McDowell: My understanding without having the figures in front of me is that even though an improvement has been achieved in relation to the level of re-offending it has not occurred to an extent where we can say more prisoners do not re-offend than do. Your point is well taken in that respect.

  Q176  Mr Winnick: Insofar as you are able to do so will you supply us with some figures about re-offending within two years?

  Mr McDowell: Levels of re-offending within that period are still far too high.

  Q177  Chairman: Would you write to us with the figures or, if not, tell us where to find them?

  Mr McDowell: If we have those figures we shall supply them.

  Q178  Gwyn Prosser: You have underlined the importance of training and more education. Other witnesses have also talked about more effective use of those tools when offenders have longer rather than shorter sentences for pretty obvious reasons. What about the churning effect? During the Committee's previous inquiry into these matters which concentrated on prisoners themselves we heard quite worrying stories about a prisoner being moved three or four times in as many months. That must also be debilitating in terms of being able to resettle.

  Mr McDowell: That is absolutely right, and we are also very concerned about it. There is potential wastage in the system in that respect. There is a lot of investment in education in prisons but if individuals are unable to complete the particular education in which they are engaged because they are moved on, or there is population pressure which leads to that, and that is not picked up in the place at which they arrive clearly that is not good for the individual and potentially we have wasted the original resource by delivering only half the education. That is definitely a challenge.

  Q179  Gwyn Prosser: How much importance do you place on the treatment of drug-abusers and people with mental health problems?

  Mr McDowell: In relation to both of those issues it is absolutely vital. From my experience I have a very clear understanding that unless you deal with the underlying causes of individual offending—in relation to mental health and drug addiction it is abundantly clear that it is likely those two causes will have a massive effect—you are unlikely to move people to a position where they will stop offending in future. It is massively important.

  Q180  Gwyn Prosser: In that case, are the government's policies and measures satisfactory? If not, what single recommendations would you make?

  Mr McDowell: My personal view is that there are too many individuals in prison who are mentally ill. For a long time as chief executive of Nacro and as a prison governor I would have liked to see a different kind of investment in terms of the facilities that might be available to deliver mental health care treatment and for those individuals to be treated in a different way. It comes back to the old debate about prisoners versus patients. Who come first? Was it a mental health problem that led to offending or did the offending in part lead to the mental health problem? We need to be more honest and braver about that as a society.

  Q181  Chairman: I am sure you will answer that you do not have the statistics, but can you give me a rough percentage of those you have to deal with in Nacro in two categories, namely those who may have mental health problems and those who use drugs?

  Mr McDowell: Your prediction is absolutely spot on.

  Q182  Chairman: Can you provide a rough estimate?

  Mr McDowell: I have worked for Nacro for only three months and I am not in a position to give you even a rough estimate. I would not like to hazard a guess but I shall certainly clarify it.

  Q183  Chairman: Putting on your old hat—obviously, you do not have today's figures—do you know the rough percentage of prisoners who went into Brixton who had either drug or mental health problems?

  Mr McDowell: I can give you a rough percentage based on my three-year experience at Brixton. I left there last August. In relation to drug addiction probably 60% of offenders who came in had some level of drug addiction. The level of addiction varied quite significantly. As to mental health it is more difficult to judge because often such problems are hidden for various reasons, but I would say that at least one quarter of them had suffered mental health problems at some level or other.

  Q184  Chairman: So, 25% had mental health problems and 60% had drug problems?

  Mr McDowell: Yes. I am separating mental health from some sort of drug addiction.

  Q185  Tom Brake: You may have heard me ask the same question of Mr Wheatley. Are you aware of any research to show how much you save if you spend £1 on supporting ex-prisoners or training them while they are in prison because those individuals do not reappear in the prison system at some future point? Is there any research that can tell us the answer to that question?

  Mr McDowell: I heard your question and was very interested in it. For all of us who work in various sectors of the criminal justice system an understanding of the savings we can make if we do x is almost like the Holy Grail. I know there are attempts ongoing to try to identify those figures. Nacro is now measuring the work it does in relation to the potential saving to the taxpayer that might be realised. I am not aware of any solid evidence in the form of figures to back that up at this stage.

  Q186  Tom Brake: I urge you to pursue that line of inquiry because if you were able to tell the Committee that spending £1 would result in a saving of £3 down the line that is the sort of thing politicians want to hear. Given we are entering an era when there is likely to be less rather than more money available, are you aware of current areas of spending that you believe are unnecessary, are targeted at the wrong things or could be more effectively spent elsewhere?

  Mr McDowell: Speaking on behalf of Nacro, one of the big frustrations for us is the level of bureaucracy built into many of the commissioning systems. Drug treatment is an interesting example of that. To go back to my experiences as governor of Brixton prison, in order to implement the integrated drug treatment system there the process was one where the money flowed down from the government department to the NHS, the PCT, the prison and the private prison health provider with whom we had contracted inside the prison. All sorts of people were taking an interest from the side, for instance the National Drug Treatment Agency. You get into a situation where there are people employed to check the checkers. That is very frustrating. I am clear that there is a lot of wastage in that respect.

  Q187  Chairman: Too many managers?

  Mr McDowell: Too many managers, too many levels and too much bureaucracy. What we would very much like to see—commissioning services is what keeps Nacro able to deliver the work it does in contributing to the reduction in crime—is straight line commissioning arrangements so we can deliver horizontal joined-up services. For us that would be an ideal outcome.

  Q188  Tom Brake: In relation to that particular example, who would get the pot of money which could be drawn down instantly without having to go through the long chain of organisations before the funding eventually dribbled down to the offender?

  Mr McDowell: I absolutely believe that you must have a degree of checking. My concern is that there is just too much of it. I would have thought that at least a couple of levels could be cut out. It would be interesting to know—before you ask I confess that I have not made the calculation—how much more money could have been used on the frontline delivery of those services had we been able to cut out some of that bureaucracy.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for giving evidence today. What you have to say is extremely important to our inquiry. Please write to us with the statistics that you have. I am sure they will help us in our deliberations.

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